{Book Reviews} January Reading Roundup

Now that I’m commuting nearly an hour to and from work, I’ve been reading more than ever. I figured I’d start sharing book reviews on my blog every month, recapping the previous month’s reads. I’m getting a late start this month, but here are the books and graphic novels that kept me company on the train in January:

1. The Walking Dead: Compendium One
Lugging around the 5+ lbs of the Walking Dead: Compendium One while commuting was well worth the temporary weightlifting. The first eight volumes span 1,088 pages written by Robert Kirkman, covering the terror of zombies, but more importantly, the brutality of its characters, which was a lot harder to stomach. The stark black and white illustrations by Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn, and Tony Moore beautifully highlight the post-apocalyptic horror of a zombie outbreak in some of the most memorable panels I’ve ever seen. Being able to tell a compelling story with short and concise dialogue through carefully organized panels is a sign of a skilled team. While the TV show has a flowing storyline with easy-to-follow scenes, the graphic novel tends to jump from perspectives much quicker (which I prefer). Despite being rendered in black and white and not having the opportunity to take advantage of the shock and awe of full-color drama, the book’s storytelling is far more dark and addictive than the AMC series. That being said, I do love me some Daryl. 5/5 ★★★★★

Walking Dead: Compendium Two
2. The Walking Dead: Compendium Two
Although the second batch of volumes of The Walking Dead were less action-packed than the first, the sequel ends up being more story-driven. There were still times during my commute when my jaw dropped and I burst with expletives while on the quiet ride car. In this set of issues, Charlie Adlard takes over for Tony Moore as the series’ primary artist, and under his pen, Rick is a much grittier character — with a scraggly beard, grunge, and crazy eyes. Moore’s drawing style was much more cartoony, with smoother, less realistic depictions of the characters. Adlard relies on heavy black shadows and fine, unvaried linework, making his work instantly dramatic. As a result of Adlard’s artwork and maybe Kirkman’s lack of characterization, I sometimes had trouble distinguishing certain zombie-fodder in Rick’s expanding group. At times, the characters would blur together and I’d have to flip back a few pages to figure out the difference between Hershel’s daughters. Regardless, I love the full and double-page splashes and ended up reading this compendium even quicker than the first. 5/5 ★★★★★

3. World War Z
More like World War ZZZZ. Maybe it’s not fair that I read this right after finishing The Walking Dead graphic novels, but I just can’t jump on this bandwagon. It took a lot of aggravation and sighing for me to even finish the book. I would skim pages, sigh, try to reread them, and play with emojis on my phone to distract myself. I was really hoping to have some suspenseful reading for the train, but I found the way this book was written to be tedious and felt the format handicapped it in a lot of ways. There was no protagonist, no continuity, no story arc, no climax. The book is about the global zombie apocalypse as told by the survivors, with each one speaking to the interviewer. However the personality that comes through the strongest is the writer, Max Brooks’, whose tone is smug and whose characters had the same voice overall — whether male, female, soldier, civilian, or politician. 1/5 ★☆☆☆☆

4. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
After reading about zombies for weeks, this was a light, easy break. Mindy Kaling does a good job throughout most of her essays, but as the end of the book nears, it feels rushed and a bit obvious that she is trying to satisfy a respectable book length. If you’re looking for powerful insight on comedy writing, you should probably remind yourself that the cover is overwhelmingly pink and what you’ll end up with instead is a conversational memoir being chronicled in the voice of a friend. More of a blog-in-a-book than a poor man’s Bossypants, the book delves into Kaling’s hard-working, sweet personality. From her babysitting experiences to explaining karaoke etiquette, The Office writer covers a lot of ground by rambling all over the place. Perhaps most memorable for me is Kaling’s adamant crush on Amy Poehler, who I love even more now after reading this book. Now, if only Kristen Wiig would get a book deal. 3/5 ★★★☆☆

5. Year One
Upon moving to Philadelphia, Ramsey Beyer challenged herself to draw one page of comics every week for her entire first year in the city. She ended up drawing 2-3 pages a week, resulting in a self-published book about a twenty-something in a new place. As an autobiographical account, Beyer depicts everyday life — renovating her apartment, traveling on the weekends, going to punk shows, and working as a nanny — but the narrative revolves primarily around her love life and open relationship. A lot of the scenes are focused on getting the comics finished, which I could understand, but it doesn’t make for the most intriguing subject matter. I didn’t really relate to most of her weekly experiences (apart from dog spooning), but her variety of page compositions and simple drawing style kept me turning the page. While this isn’t the most amazing story, I think the amount of work Beyer produced in a single year is incredible and shows a great deal of devotion that inspired me to put pen to paper. 3/5 ★★★☆☆

6. Chicken With Plums
In her follow-up to Persepolis and Embroideries, Marjane Satrapi tells the quiet, heartwrenching story of her great-uncle — Nasser Ali Khan — a famous Iranian musician whose instrument is destroyed by his wife. After falling into a depression and deciding that he has nothing else to live for, he waits for death. Satrapi presents each day of his final week with melancholic flashbacks and flash-forwards from several perspectives. In a trip through Khan’s memories and dreams, readers gain more insight into the grand scheme of life and death, with humor inserted throughout to balance the heavy sadness of its protagonist. Only occasionally does Satrapi break out of her strict frame-to-frame design, but when she does, it’s deeply moving. In the end, it’s hard to sympathize with Satrapi’s uncle, a shallow man who shuts everyone out of his life, but the last bittersweet pages of the book make everything fall into place. 4/5 ★★★★☆

7. It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken
In his mock-autobiographical graphic novel, Seth (the pen name of Gregory Gallant), depicts an obsessive search for a fictional Canadian cartoonist named Kalo. The book was published in collected form by Drawn and Quarterly, originally serialized in single issues as Palookaville. The nostalgic style and simplicity of the hazy, blue-and-grey color palette mirrors Seth’s longing for a simpler time, paying homage to the “good-old days” of the Schultz era. The column strips are reminiscent of old black and white films, with a retro feel that deepens the narrative. It’s pretty incredible that it’s the artist’s first published graphic novel, however his unabashed “navel gazing” and overall angst can lead to some dull passages. Overall, the intrigue built around the search for Kalo builds up to moments of greatness surrounding a mostly uninteresting character. 3/5 ★★★☆☆